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Contextualizing LGBT+ History within the Social Studies Curriculum

NCSS Position Statement

Approved by the NCSS Board of Directors, September 2019

Introduction

Americans are presently situated within a political, cultural, and social context where collective values and legal rights are being challenged by those who hold power and privilege. While this is not unique to 2019, it is a time in which we, as a society, must recognize the critical importance of historical accuracy and the need to build the skills necessary to discern facts about who we are collectively and as individuals. This is especially true for LGBT+ individuals, whose rights and histories continue to be contested in the courts of law and public opinion. A more complete and intentional social studies curriculum is one method through which educators, as change-agents, can contribute to this collective need.

Historically, exclusions and misrepresentations have perpetuated a deficit-based narrative of marginalized cultural groups and have presented a subjective and singular interpretation of the story of America told through the lens of those who created—and continue to benefit from—American cultural institutions: white, financially secure, Christian, heterosexual [cisgender] males.  1 The social studies curriculum can avoid intentionally reifying this narrative if it includes accurate representations of specific cultural groups. It is important to avoid presenting the histories of these cultural groups within the paradigm of victimization—for example, by framing India’s history only through British colonialism, Indigenous peoples only through European colonialism, Jews only through the Holocaust, African Americans only through slavery, or LGBT+ people only through Stonewall.

Putting the collective experiences of cultural groups at the margins of the historical narrative disempowers them and fails to consider how those who have been marginalized in society have influenced changes to the systems that were built to subjugate or oppress them. It is critical that these representations be corrected, including within the curriculum system.

Intended Audience

This Position Statement is aimed at informing all who hold a stake in the PreK-12 communities and institutions of higher education regarding the ethical, moral, and civic imperative to contextualize LGBT+ history within the social studies curriculum. Educators, administrators, and policymakers all play a significant role in reconciling historic discrimination and ensuring that rising generations are well-equipped to advance the ideals of “liberty and justice for all” by participating in a democratic system with a more accurate understanding of “We, the People.”

Background

June 28, 2019, marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots, a key turning point for the burgeoning gay liberation movement. The year 2019 also marked the third anniversary of the designation of the Stonewall National Monument. The site’s National Historic Landmark Nomination justified its significance as follows:

Although Stonewall occurred less than fifty years ago, the site meets the criteria for exceptional significance because its importance was widely recognized by scholars and citizens almost immediately, because it has been the subject of extensive scholarly research and interpretation, because it represents an outstanding and clearly defined episode in the history of civil rights in America, because its significance is recognized internationally, and because it has had a demonstrable effect on the lives of millions of Americans, as well as on American society in general. […] Stonewall has become an empowering symbol of global proportions. 2

But while Stonewall is the most widely known LGBT+ historical event, it was by no means the first. People whom we label and understand today as LGBT+ have always existed, and LGBT+ history in the United States extends to the earliest days of our country’s founding. Ample primary source materials from the Library of Congress, National Archives, Smithsonian Museum of American History, National Park Service, and libraries, archives, and historical societies from across the nation testify to this long and rich history.

Examples of digitally available primary sources are available from

Relevancy

Contextualizing LGBT+ history—and anchoring its presentation with primary source materials—allows all students to engage in inquiry-based, non-judgmental critical historical analysis that provides the opportunity to witness the following:

  • Marginalized cultural groups who have fought for extensions of liberty (and continue to do so) are united in their goal of seeking equal access and opportunity in employment, housing, education, public accommodations, civic participation, and citizenship
  • The advancement of time does not always advance “liberty and justice for all,” underscoring the responsibility of each generation to secure:
    • well-informed civic participation to strengthen constitutional tenets and ensure that institutional systems adhere to the principles and ideals of American democracy
    • the social studies as a critical core discipline

Rising generations of students, teachers, and PreK-12 staff are surrounded by LGBT+ topics in the media, pop culture, politics, and current legislation. The time is now to implement a more accurate and balanced social studies curriculum that includes the historical path and progression of these topics, contextualized through their intersections with concurrent events. This will allow for evidence-based, academic discourse about LGBT+–inclusive topics as an integral part of U.S. history and will help students make connections to the information that surrounds them in today’s world.

Rationale for a Call to Action

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) recognizes the need to support more inclusive, intentional, and historically accurate curriculum, as evidenced by Principle Two in the NCSS Code of Ethics for the Social Studies Profession (2016):  9

It is the ethical responsibility of social studies professionals to provide to every student the knowledge, skills, experiences, and attitudes necessary to function as an effective participant in a democratic system.

This ethical obligation, rooted in ideological tension, is the foundation for any dialogue about LGBT+ history and its rightful place in the social studies curriculum. The shift in public attitudes about gay rights is the most dramatic ever recorded in American history. 10 As American society addresses the legacy of historic discrimination, this Position Statement is a call to action to use LGBT+–inclusive social studies education—anchored in an inquiry-based, non-judgemental critical analysis of primary sources—as a contribution to this shift.

Mandated education policy that calls for the inclusion of LGBT+ history, although well-intentioned, is far removed from the realities of classroom practice and fails to take into account the inherent complexities of implementation—the what, where, and how—especially considering the fact that most educators have not had the opportunity to engage with LGBT+ history within their own academic experience. And without high-quality professional development and instructional resources, it is possible, and indeed quite probable, that compliance efforts will result in inaccuracies and/or a trivializing of LGBT+ history within the lens of a presumed identity. Additionally, complacency about the mere existence of mandated policy might result in less vigilance as to its efficacy and little to no curricular advancements.

In anticipation of the aforementioned problems, a call to action is necessary that provides a context to support states' efforts to enhance their curricula.

Call to Action

This Position Statement on contextualizing LGBT+ history within the social studies curriculum recommends an actionable response to two critical questions, framed as both short-term and long-term approaches:

  • What is my role, as an individual, in advancing the social studies towards a more complete, contextualized—and thereby more accurate and empowering—curriculum?
  • How can we, as caretakers of the social studies, create a sustainable model for a more complete, contextualized—and thereby more accurate and empowering—curriculum?

This Position Statement asserts that contextualizing LGBT+ history within the story of America through an inquiry-based, non-judgmental critical analysis of primary sources is a reflection of what unifies caretakers of the social studies, irrespective of their political affiliations or ideologies: the inexorable call of professional accountability to advance the ideals of American democracy through the process of social studies education.

Conclusion

NCSS fully recognizes and supports the civic, ethical, and moral imperatives to advance a more historically accurate, complete, and empowering social studies curriculum that contextualizes LGBT+ history—and the histories of other marginalized cultural groups. The social, cultural, and political implications of sidelining, omitting and/or misrepresenting certain cultural groups are damaging and antithetical to a true democratic education rooted in our collective code of ethics to “do no harm.”

Acknowledgements

This Position Statement was co-authored by:

  • Debra Fowler, Cofounder & Executive Director, History UnErased, Inc.
  • Dr. Steven LaBounty-McNair, Executive Board Chair, History UnErased, Inc.

Contributing advisors

  • Warren Blumenfeld, B.A., M.Ed., Ed.D., Amherst, MA
  • Lillian Faderman, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., La Jolla, CA
  • Byron Holz, B.S. and M.E.-PD, La Crosse, WI
  • Eric Marcus, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., New York, NY
  • Miriam Morgenstern, B.A., M.S. TEFL, Westford, MA
  • Janson Wu, B.A., J.D., Cambridge, MA
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